Democracy as a way of life

Image: Alex Fu


Democracy is essentially a way of living, not of governing

“We often write the word Democracy.\ Yet it bears repeating that this is a word\ whose essence still sleeps, undisturbed (...)\ It is a remarkable word, whose history has not yet been written, I suppose,\ because that history it is yet to be interpreted.\ She is, in some ways, the younger sister of another remarkable\ and oft-used word, Nature,\ whose story is also awaiting a writer.” (Walt Whitman)

History has already shown that at times like the current one, when authoritarianism is on the rise and taking over the way of doing and conducting politics, human madness has always been exacerbated in a very unbearable and self-destructive way. Even so, humanity, on the many occasions in which it found itself involved in these moments of civilizational impasse, managed to deviate from the route of self-destruction, reorganize itself and open itself to new political conformations, welcoming new democratic experiences, even if always very insufficient, restricted and limited to the constraints imposed by the hegemonic cosmovision of each historical period.

We are, today, experiencing the turbulence of yet another historical transition that, like those that occurred in the past, is marked by the feeling of profound uneasiness, discontinuity, disorientation, insecurity and vulnerability in the face of ongoing events. The currently predominant techno-economist worldview, which finds its strongest political expression in the power of platform capitalism, will still prevail for some time in this historical interregnum. While some political analysts are inclined to believe that a reinvigorated state under the auspices of a kind of illiberalism high tech, will guide our next historical phase, just as industrial liberalism has guided the past 250 years, there are many indications that this is not the most likely (and desirable) prospect for humanity.

The profound social inequalities, ongoing environmental disarrangements and sociocultural ebullition, which have been exacerbated since the end of the 1960s, give some signs that the cosmovision that could emerge, in the coming decades, will tend to a new understanding of convergent reality with the theoretical contributions formulated throughout the 1905th century. We learned through Thomas Kuhn that, in the clash of paradigms and interpretations of the world, science and philosophy have always been linked to worldviews, sometimes influencing, sometimes being influenced. Among these more recent contributions are: relativity (Einstein, 1927), uncertainty (Heisenberg, 1928), complementarity (Bohr, 1971), chance and necessity (Monod, 1972), self-organization (Atlan, 1972), Gaia (Lovelock, 1973); complex thinking (Morin, 1974), autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela, 1977), negentropy (Prigogine, 1980), implicate order (Bohm, 1983), fractals (Mandelbrot, 1989), chaos (Gleick, 1996; Lorenz, 1989), catastrophes (Thom, 1995), fuzzy logic (Kosko, 1990), among others (this list is far from being exhaustive). As Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry (1977), noted in the XNUMXs, “we are witnessing the emergence of a science that is no longer limited to simplified, idealized situations, but confronts us with the complexity of the real world”.

The rapacious economic logic of current political agents – which has existed since before man invented private property and production surplus –, and the institutional anachronism that lead to the current geopolitical anarchy, whether on the side of twilight liberal capitalism in the West, or in the side of the ascendant illiberal capitalism of Asia, or even of the subservient and reprimarized capitalism of the exploited peripheral countries of the Global South, given their inability to respond to the growing global social and environmental convulsions in progress, will, little by little, give way to new social actors whose worldview is supported by the perception that reality is more associated with fluid and relational attributes such as interdependence, plurality, otherness, diversity, community and dialogue.

Faced with the fierce geopolitical tensions of this multipolar world, which are marking the transition from the current era, if humanity does not succumb to a deluge of atomic bombs and, subsequently, to a long nuclear winter that would make life on Earth as we know it unfeasible, emerging worldview is likely to accept that reality is best understood as a complex adaptive process. A new understanding will emerge that the real world is governed by chance and necessity, by a mysterious tangle of relationships, and not exclusively by the human will to domination and control that prevailed in previous cosmovisions, and that triggered the anthropocentrism that is dragging civilization into the abyss.

At the same time, this agonizing historical context could create the conditions for the emergence of broader and deeper democratic coexistences. But until these new actors gain enough critical mass to reverse the current worldview, we will literally have to survive with the three most devastating by-products of exclusionary, predatory and belligerent capitalist expansiveness that will afflict humanity in the coming decades: abysmal social inequality, the grim imminence of an environmental meltdown and the continuing threat of a terminal nuclear conflagration.

Looking at our long and suffering historical process, it becomes difficult to imagine that the exit from this phase of profound regression that is outlined in the near horizon does not contemplate the perspective of rescuing a democracy of a fractal nature – a new way of human coexistence in which the Democracy spreads across all scales and across all spectrums of political spaces – precisely because the current systemic crisis, which many already call an existential crisis, is the result of an imperialist logic that has also become fractal. The conflicted being that characterizes civilized man seems to be approaching its apex, creating the conditions of its own negation and, thus, making human existence itself intolerable. The high and increasing rates of depression and anxiety are there to demonstrate this fact. We arrive at a situation that was well expressed by ecologist Garrett Hardin: “Having eliminated all other enemies, man is now his own worst enemy. By finishing off all his predators, man is his own predator.”

In order to envision such a perspective of an in-depth rescue of democracy, which will allow us to overcome this systemic crisis, we will start from the assumption that what feeds the democratic yearning that has accompanied much of the history of civilization is an impulse inherent in the nature of the human animal, whatever it may be. despite the adversity of their circumstances, to always follow a way of living in participation, inclusion, cooperation, understanding, agreement, mutual respect and, above all, in parsimony with their environment. The state of permanent psychic conflict that characterizes the behavior of the so-called civilized man is not a constitutive fact of human nature, with which we would be irremediably condemned to live with. Human conflict derives from a cultural component, not a biological one, as the Chilean neurobiologist Humberto Maturana maintains: “belonging to a culture is an operational condition, not a constitutive condition or intrinsic property of the human beings who carry it out”.

Therefore, democracy and coexistence (the act of living with each other and with the environment on a daily basis, including all the contingencies inherent to these relationships), will be addressed here, as inseparable concepts, not only from a point of view reduced to the social sciences, but also encompasses the natural sciences. This intertwining even explains the coexistence of the immense diversity of ways and forms of life and the sustainability of the complex web of relationships that maintained the evolution of the terrestrial biosphere for billions of years. Therefore, this inseparability was, as we will see throughout the subsequent texts, what also supported the long evolution of the different primate lineages, which culminated in that of the Homo sapiens.

We will follow, then, a pattern of thought that tries to seek convergences between philosophy, the social sciences and the new natural sciences, developed in recent decades, according to the new theoretical contributions listed above. Democracy will be treated here, therefore, from the perspective of the phenomenology of biology intertwined with that of culture, two inseparable aspects for the understanding of living beings, according to the understanding of the renowned neurobiologist Humberto Maturana, who will be our main reference.

We will use as a starting point the reflections that Humberto Maturana develops on democracy in a seminal text entitled Matristic and Patriarchal Conversations, which is an integral part of the book Love and Game – Forgotten Fundamentals of the Human from Patriarchy to Democracy (1993), written in partnership with the German psychologist Gerda Verden-Zoller.

It is noteworthy, however, that throughout history, many notable thinkers, from the Athenian democrats (Solon, Cleisthenes, Pericles and others), through expressive names such as Spinoza, Rousseau, Tocqueville, to the most recent ones, Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Amartya Sen, Umberto Eco, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, among many others, also made their contribution in the same direction. All of them dedicated themselves to understanding and interpreting the different forms of social interaction, offering better arguments for the way of living in democracy. All of them thought of democracy based on assumptions that overcome the constraints imposed by the patriarchal pattern, dominating and controlling realities, which characterized and forged the entire course of civilization.

After the notable discoveries of Charles Darwin in the field of natural sciences (Theory of the Evolution of Species – 1859), Maturana was perhaps the one who best managed to broaden the understanding of the dynamics of life, even reaching, through the so-called “biology of cognition” ”, an expanded understanding also about human behavior and life in society. Contradicting the primacy of reason that has always guided the philosophical and scientific understanding of natural phenomena and human behavior, Maturana understands that “human history has followed and continues to follow a course determined by emotions”, and that “our desires and preferences arise in us at every moment, in the intertwining of our biology with our culture and determine, at every moment, our actions.”

By investigating the interweaving between the biological processes that support living beings and the social dynamics that support life in society, Maturana seems to have unraveled, or, at least, to have taken the first steps towards what Walt Whitman, considered the father of American poetry and poet of democracy, desired 200 years ago, as exposed in the epigraph that begins these reflections.

Maturana's discoveries in the field of biology, and especially in the biology of cognition, allowed him to extrapolate to new understandings in the field of human behavior, representing a great advance towards establishing links between the phenomenology of politics and the phenomenology of biology and , thus, we can perceive how the biological and the cultural intertwine, due to a condition inherent to the nature of living beings, and how, in the case of human beings, this relationship was dissociated in the course of the civilizing process, contrary to the principles that govern metabolism constituents of life and, consequently, also making democratic coexistence and the vast web of relationships that sustain life on planet Earth unfeasible.

We know that it is not uncommon to observe in most people and especially in the highest social strata, which includes political actors from the most varied ideological currents, State authorities, leaders of governmental institutions, and even large corporations, to defend the democracy tooth and nail, but not living it in their daily relationships with others, whether in the family, in their communities, in the company, at school or in any other space of coexistence. Western institutions, in particular, are recognized as guardians of democracy, but in practice they are contaminated by patrimonialist, authoritarian, exclusive and anti-democratic relations. Our civilization, largely forged by Eurocentric arrogance, suffers from a great paradox: it desires and firmly defends democracy in the realm of rhetoric, however, it continually denies it in the realm of experience.

The same is reflected in the relationship between human beings and the environment. The need to build sustainable societies has never been so widespread, yet we remain trapped in a consumerist, excluding, predatory and unsustainable standard of living. Deep down, we establish a utilitarian relationship with democracy, just as we do with the Earth. Without realizing it, we behave and act as contradictory and conflicting beings, because we are blindly immersed in a patriarchal culture which, as it is millenary and, therefore, part of the long process of formation of our civilization, we consider to be the natural way of life for humans.

If democracy is to be constituted as a way of living in participation, inclusion, cooperation, understanding, agreement and mutual respect, there are many ways to do this. Therefore, there are many expressions of democratic life, which is why it is not defensible, but must be lived according to the circumstances and contexts of each individual, each community, each people and each country. Democracy is essentially a way of living, not of governing. The experiences that tried to impose on other societies a system of government that recognizes itself as democratic, whatever the ideological matrix, invariably ended up denying and destroying rich ancestral cultural traditions, often conquered with great difficulty, thus generating more and more wars, conflicts and violence between peoples.

Therefore, we will also deal with how, both our daily life and the history of humanity, are full of examples that demonstrate how the imposition of so-called democratic behaviors and ideals resulted in various forms of oppressive relationships and implacable tyrannies. And not only against the human condition, but also influenced and fed the many dynamics that forged the course of civilization, dragging it towards the profound social and environmental degradation that we experience today.

We are talking here from the perspective of a neomatristic rescue, as suggested by Maturana and others. The rescue of a time when democracy did not yet exist in the form of concepts or rules in the language of homo sapiens, because he didn't need directives and norms to be imposed on each other. There were simply ways of living coexisting in a way that was more adapted and integrated to the complexity of the natural world and its contingencies than our millennial patriarchal way of life. To use Maturana's words, a time when “everyday life was lived in a non-hierarchical coherence with all living beings”.

The ongoing tragedies at the beginning of this millennium, pointing to an overwhelming and unfathomable social and environmental destruction, on a global scale, will tend more and more to challenge our condition of survival as a species. An increasingly intractable world lies right in front of us. Considering that history has shown us that “humanity does not tolerate much reality” – remembering here the English poet Thomas Eliot and his refined acuity about human behavior –, the flow of events seems to indicate that the time is approaching for us to revive a democracy of the day by day, as before, without needing appropriations and distortions to defend it, feeding and maintaining the tyrannies, especially that of capital and the algorithms, which are dragging civilization to the precipice.

*Antonio Sales Rios Neto, public federal server, is a writer and political and cultural activist.


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